Paul Pillar

Winning May Be the Only Thing for Trump, But Not For the U.S.

The issues of election interference and Trump’s professed admiration for Putin make relations with Russia an especially delicate case, but the impulse to win is likely to complicate other negotiations and relationships as well.  This may be the case with China, as suggested by Trump already trying to put the one-China policy in play.  Most of this mistake probably can be attributed to naïveté, and specifically to a failure to understand how the Taiwan issue figures in Chinese thinking, regardless of how justified or unjustified that thinking is to us.  But it may also be an early indication, along with Trump’s mercantilist approach to trade and outdated perceptions of such things as currency manipulation and job losses, of approaching the entire U.S.-Chinese relationship in win-loss terms.

Another case is Iran, where there already is a recent important deal in the form of the agreement that limit’s Iran’s nuclear program.  Here Trump’s self-promoted image as the man who can reach better deals than anyone else fits with the existing Republican Party mantra that we should have gotten a “better deal” with Iran.  All of this ignores the long and laborious negotiating history of this agreement, what the Iranians have given up, and the nonproliferation objectives achieved.  A quixotic attempt to reach some alternative that could better be described as a “win”—even though it would not move Iran any farther away from a nuclear weapon than it already is, nor advance any other U.S. interests—risks destroying the very important benefits of the existing agreement. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s trumpeting of his skills as a deal-maker, and notwithstanding all that has been said and written about the “transactional” approach this businessman is likely to take toward foreign policy, a man with his mindset is not about to operate in his new job the way he did in his old one.  As head of a privately-owned business, profits and losses could be kept private—and with his refusal to make his tax returns public, they are largely staying that way.  The public side of the business could be limited to his promotion of himself and his brand, with bragging about having the most luxurious buildings or the best golf courses.  Now the game has changed for him.  The public perception of gains and losses is different.  If Trump really were to approach foreign relations in a pragmatic, businesslike way, that in general would be good for U.S. interests.  But probably his need to be seen to “win” will get in the way.  When winning is the only thing for the chief executive, that is not so good for the country.